Degree In Sight

Michelle Vaughan does it all. She was president of a student lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) group at the University of Akron for nearly three years. She volunteers with APA's Div. 44 (Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Issues). She serves as a board member of the Akron Pride Center. And she was just appointed to the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students' Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns (APAGS-CLGBTC).

But to get to this point, the sixth-year counseling psychology graduate student had to find an accepting program and then tell peers, professors and internship directors that she is bisexual. That was no small task for the Kansas native, who grew up in a conservative area and told few people that she was bisexual. To come out on campus, Vaughan has used several strategies-talking to older students and professional mentors, reading diversity statements and discussing her extracurricular involvement both candidly and formally.

For even the most active LGBT graduate students, such issues as acceptance, safety and inclusiveness can cloud their education as well as their personal lives. Each new setting, from graduate school to internship, forces them to evaluate their environment and rethink how and when to come out to faculty and peers, says Maryka Biaggio, PhD, a psychology professor at Pacific University in Oregon and chair of the education and training committee of Div. 44.


PICKING A PROGRAM

The social environment of your program, fellowship or internship should play a large part in the coming out decision, says Biaggio. Places that offer LGBT programming or support groups or are located in cities that do, for example, can help students decide if it is safe to come out to peers, she says.

Here are some ways to find an inclusive program:

  • Consider location. Many LGBT students say they applied to graduate schools and internships in large cities because those places may be more welcoming.

But don't stereotype places, Biaggio warns. "Location is not always going to be a 100 percent reliable predictor," she says.

All cities have their challenges. Jennifer Heidt, a fourth-year clinical student at Temple University, lives with her partner in a Philadelphia neighborhood where people have written slurs on her car and left anti-gay paraphernalia on her door. While the neighborhood is safe and the vast majority of people are friendly, she says, there are "pockets where a few people are insensitive."

Meanwhile, lifelong San Francisco-area resident Michael Frese has encountered no discomfort during his internship at a Veterans Administration hospital in Salt Lake City.

"I certainly don't feel ostracized or not included at my site," says Frese, a fifth-year clinical psychology graduate student at California's Pacific Graduate School of Psychology and former member of APAGS-CLGBTC. He's found other LGBT students in his program for support and friendship.

  • Talk to LGBT students. Ask students about LGBT issues as well as the program's general atmosphere, says Biaggio. Their opinions about the program's inclusiveness speak volumes more than a faculty member's might, she says.

Shauna Summers, a past Div. 44 student representative, suggests students enroll in the joint Div. 44 and APAGS-CLGBTC mentoring program. APAGS administers the program by matching LGBT graduate students with psychologists who provide guidance on issues such as coming out in a program or doing research on LGBT populations. Students can ask the mentors for opinions about the gay-friendliness of schools or internship sites. The division also offers a listserv, notes Summers, a fifth-year counseling psychology graduate student at Southern Illinois University.

  • Look at faculty research interests. "If the faculty does research on LGBT issues, that's a positive indicator" of an inclusive program, Biaggio says. However, lack of LGBT research doesn't preclude a supportive circle of LGBT faculty who may do research in other areas, she notes.

  • Check for support groups on the campus and in the surrounding community, Vaughan says. Does the school have an LGBT organization? Does the school participate in support programs such as "Safe Space," where faculty and graduate students can volunteer as a person that LGBT can go to for advice or for someone to listen?

For those researching internship sites, also look at the larger community for supportive organizations, Biaggio advises. She says she knows of many LGBT-welcoming churches in her area. In Utah, Frese attends a synagogue headed by a lesbian rabbi.

  • Read the school's diversity statement. Most schools post on their Web sites a statement affirming their commitment to diversity. Is the statement easy to find? Is its language inclusive of sexual minorities?


STRATEGIES FOR COMING OUT

Once LGBT students select a program, they must next tackle whether, how and when to let others know about their sexual orientation.

But that's a strategy that varies by each student's particular situation. For Cisco Sanchez, an eighth-year counseling psychology graduate student at the University of Iowa, that meant being very open.

"Graduate school itself is hectic, and it does take energy to hide," he says. "To get through, it's important to be yourself. If you can't be out and true to who you are, I can't imagine how much more difficult it would be."

Here are some strategies he and others recommend:

  • Put it on paper. Jackie Gilles, a first-year clinical psychology graduate student at Spalding University in Louisville, Ky., included her extensive undergraduate extracurricular involvement on her curriculum vitae. She was a two-year president of a gay/straight alliance, for which she organized a speakers panel and a community AIDS rally.

By putting such information in an application, diversity essay or resume, "You're saying, 'This is something about me, and I'm giving you permission to ask about it later if you think it's appropriate,'" Vaughan says. "I think that's better than 'Hi, I'm Michelle and I'm bisexual. Let me shake your hand.'"

  • Be open and upfront. For Kenneth Matos, a first-year industrial and organizational psychology graduate student at George Washington University, the best policy was early honesty. That way, he avoided people who were uncomfortable with the situation, he says: "People feel betrayed if you are not clear upfront. To them, you're suddenly in the wrong box and they don't know how to move you back."

Use tact and timing to raise the issue naturally. Some people may resent LGBT students who make an issue of their sexual identity, Matos says. He suggests bringing identity into the conversation naturally, such as when people are talking about their own relationships. Matos, for example, mentions that he lives with his partner when people ask him where he lives.

"Make it part of a larger conversation," he says. "People take it better than you just putting it out there by saying 'I'm gay.' Otherwise, they feel like, 'What am I supposed to do with this?'"

  • Make it a nonissue, if you feel comfortable enough, advises Jonathan Adler, a third-year clinical psychology graduate student at Northwestern University. Adler says that a person's sexual orientation needn't be their defining issue on their vitae or in a conversation, unless they wish to present themselves that way.

"I chose to make it just one other thing about me that new people would learn," he says.


APA's Office on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns surveys graduate psychology programs about their LGB research, courses, professional training and climate. The office is updating the survey and aims to publish the results later this year.

"People feel betrayed if you are not clear upfront. To them, you're suddenly in the wrong box and they don't know how to move you back."

Kenneth Matos
George Washington University